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Wiring the Campuses

Cal State's ambitious cyberplan needs careful vetting

May 09, 1998

The California State University system is struggling to realize one of the most ambitious partnerships ever between the private sector and public education. By affiliating with major high-tech corporations in a project called the California Educational Technology Initiative, or CETI, Cal State leaders hope to wire their 22 campuses with state-of-the-art computer information networks.

What inspired CETI was Cal State leaders' realization that since the state Legislature wasn't about to hand them such a sum for computerization, they would have to earn it through resourceful innovation. So last year they proposed a joint project with four high-tech companies that would invest a total of $300 million in Cal State schools over three years in return for exclusive, 10-year contracts to provide computer goods, telephone and cable services to Cal State faculty, staff and students.

CETI is an inspired but risky deal, for it commits Cal State to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the assumption that technology will reap huge educational rewards. Historically this assumption has often proved incorrect. In 1922, Thomas Edison assured educators that motion pictures would "supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks," and in 1945, Cleveland public schools manager William Levenson predicted "the time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as the blackboard."

Cal State leaders are now restructuring the original CETI deal to address student and faculty concerns and find replacements for Microsoft and Hughes Electronics, who dropped out of the deal because of profitability concerns (Fujitsu and GTE remain). While seeking new partners, Cal State also needs to think about its own spending on the project. The university's teaching needs and the companies' desires could be on a collision course. For instance, the current deal requires Cal State to earmark all of its CETI revenues to pay for fiber-optic wiring and other infrastructure projects that are the CETI companies' specialty, even if students would benefit more from plain old computers and software. The current CETI deal also obligates Cal State to devote most of its $80-million yearly technology budget to buying products from participating companies. To ensure that the companies don't overcharge students and faculty for things like laptop computers and product support, Cal State proposes a watchdog to ensure that CETI charges no more than market rates. Good idea, but only if the agency is truly independent.

Cal State does need to offer genuine incentives to attract new partners, and the key is in finding businesses whose interests coincide with the university's. A cable company, for instance, would be eager to wire Cal State campuses if by doing so it could reduce its costs for delivering pay cable services to residents in the surrounding community.

True, the computer is already more important to education than movies or radio, because it can offer individualized, interactive guidance to students. But the CETI project underscores how important it is for educators to develop shrewd business smarts when dealing with private partners whose interests necessarily lie more with profit than learning. CETI is an inspired but risky deal, for it commits Cal State to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the assumption that technology will reap huge educational rewards. Historically this assumption has often proved incorrect.

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